Along the Frontier of Proteus's Realm

How shall I meet thee and subdue thy wiles!
Thou art so savage, and anon so suave ;
The refluent tide art thou, the high-reared wave;
Now all wrath-furrowed, now all dimpling smiles.
Thou hast thy lulls, thy placid breathingwhiles,
But soon thou singest of the open grave,
Wide-gaping for the seaman stanch and brave,
That goeth down before the storm’s dread files.
How shall I meet thee and o’ercome thy wiles,
And purport gather from thy crafty speech,
When one same form thou never wilt retain,
But now the broad sea art, and now its isles,
And now a wreckèd mast upon the beach —
A wave-filled shell — a tangled seaweed skein!

Those wandering Greeks who attempted to consult the “ infallible old man of the sea" regarding the fortunes of themselves and their friends had trouble enough before they succeeded in hunting down the masquerading oracle, and obtaining from him the desired information. What, then, can I hope to elicit from the immortal Truth-Teller ? Surely no intimate secrets of his kingdom are to be communicated to one who has but walked along the frontier, neither giving bold battle across the border, nor even devising any manner of snare to capture his unwary citizens. It must content me to record a few, and those the slightest, of the forms which he assumes to mortals who have not tasted the enlightening herb of Glaucus.

Before any ventures along his borders, I had had some experience with waters illimitable to the eye; for I claimed at least passing acquaintance with one of the Great Lakes and its characteristic moods. I had hastily concluded that the difference noted by the senses as between inland and exterior waters, alike boundless to the vision, might well be more fanciful than real. This prejudgment did not stand; for the perspective, the sound, the breath, of the sea, when they became matters of experimental knowledge, were altogether distinctive from any previous revelation. There was the undeniable difference in color, and even in the same color, as displayed by the fresh and the salt water. Instead of the ethereal, airy, ultramarine tint so often observed in the middle distance of Erie, here was a blue of duskier shade, more opaque, more approaching black, —as though to the studious and reflecting larger waters had opened up the remoter depths of that interstellar darkness which gives to the heavens the color blue. Moreover, though the sea has its own exquisite chromatic changes, it did not seem to me it could show a more lovely variation than the lake’s successive bandings of live green, amethyst, and final azure blending with the tint of the horizon. But there is much to impress one as between the short “chopped wave of the lake, falling assiduously upon the shore with a brisk staccato enunciation, and the longer, more deliberate swell and adagio movement of the far-traveled sea, moving between continents, and having the whole Atlantic coast in its patrol. As to the dominant mood induced in the lonely stroller along the sands, it seems to be one and the same for lake and sea shore,— rapport with ages gone, and sympathy with all the frustrate past typified by the inrolling and receding waves in endless succession.

“ And I converse with many a shipwrecked crew,”

is the closing strain in Thoreau’s rhythmical, sea-thrilled testimony. Other elements in the mood of the observer are a vague wistfulness and speculation, — as of one

“ who sits ashore, and longs perchance
To visit dolphin-corals in the seas,” —

and withal a vague expectancy, a looking and listening for a revelation more entire than has hitherto been vouchsafed. Perhaps out of a desire to break the insistent monotone of the sea’s chant has arisen the impression of a greater third or ninth wave. The listener on shore finds himself attempting through the multitudinous uncompleted sounds to gather in and define the total voice of the sea, — element all vowel, needing for its full articulation the estopping consonant of the shore. Writes Alexander Smith (who rises finely to any Neptunian suggestion), “Unlanguaged as the earnest sea.” Surely it makes as if it would speak to us ! Incessant in signals to the eye and incoherent greetings to the ear, with “eternal whisperings,” undersongs, moanings, hallooings, stands before us this unintelligible primal giant, even like Nimrod in Dantean vision blowing his horn and loudly addressing all who approach in a language long since forgotten by earth. I dream of a race of early men to whom the earnest sea may not have been unlanguaged. As one grows accustomed to this gray giant’s voice, the sound, which at first was hoarse and rudely invasive, becomes by paradox a sort of silence, wherein better than otherwise may be heard any still small voice addressed to the innermost thought. Also, to one lying upon the vibrating shore, at times the jar of the falling waters translates itself as the measured pulse-beats of the live planet, corresponsive to those of the listener’s atomy human existence.

It is said no man bathes twice in the same river. There is no similar saying about the sea. Is it that this omniradiant energy is never past, never decadent ? Even in the outflow of the tide there is a prophetic rumor of return, and the spent wave of the sea falls back seemingly but to gather force for a renewed assault upon the shore. Over the constant fluctuation of this wide water is an emphasis laid upon its permanency, and upon an antiquity to which the solid land is mere parvenu. Yet it is often the sea’s province to uncover such records as the land holds in its little span of memory ; for in many a crumbling bluff gone peoples have left an accidental cipher to speak of their occupancy. Along the Cape Cod shore, the Indian’s arrowhead, itself like a petrified leaf, is often dislodged from a well-defined stratum which holds also the white chips from immemorial oyster and clam bakes, together with pieces of charcoal from the red man’s fire. The entire Stratum is overlaid with a darker line of soil, indicating that a forest has been and has ceased to be, since the date of those rude convivialities of savage life.

To one acquainted only with inland fresh waters the breath and taste of salt in the seaside atmosphere are bracing novelties; while a first adventure into the surf provokes the impression that Æsculapius with his potions has usurped the dominion of the sea. Let the bather have a care. “ He drank a salt cup for his sin,”chants old Chapman. Surprised with a mouthful of sea water, one seems about to suffer the penalty of Ajax. My own introduction to the sea was of this serio-comic order.

Upon the spacious mornlit strand
A shell I saw, with sparkling water spanned,
The gift of the retiring wave.
With hasty hand,
In sudden thirst, I snatched the sea god’s
chalice brave ;
The brackish draught
AH fain and all unwise I quaffed.
Tlie sea god in his rippling mantle shook and
laughed !

I further experimented in this direction, tasting of that frothy white substance which often collects upon the shore, and which I had thought should be the residuum of the sea’s bitter sorrow mixed with the wrath of the sea. To find it only insipidly brackish was something of a disappointment.


Light as the air
It lies on the sands the tide has left bare ;
Ay, lighter than air
Flutter its loose flakes here and there.
Now it seemeth to me
Lamb’s wool shorn from the flocks of the sea,
And now there’s a hint
That it bears Aphrodite’s imprint,
Yet never a gleam
Is clearly discerned of that beauty supreme ;
Only this, and no more, —
A wreath of salt foam on the wind-swept shore !

A striking distinction between fresh and salt waters is the more teeming and various life of the latter, and this whether of vegetable or animal organisms, from the dingy swath of the wave-winnowed seaweed to the barnacle-studded rocks and driftwood of the shore, with the innumerable dark shell-bearing creatures which the outgoing tide leaves on the sand in lazy liquid contemplation after their kind. A sense of oppression comes to the mind in considering these myrmidons; at least, as I walked along the beach and noticed the disintegration of empty shells on the one hand, and on the other the cumbrous and infinitely slow movements of the snails in the ooze, it seemed to me that the very sands underfoot, which now were receiving those remnants of outworn shell, might once have been instinct with life, and perhaps were on their way again to become vital habitations, through the unresting processes of protean nature.

In fine weather, by the sea, time wastes exquisitely, and purpose dies by a lovely euthanasy. Conscience bleaches white and clear of any imprint as to duty. You are hourly hoodwinked into the belief that there is now no task more pertinent to your interests than that of mentally recording the impressions gained of sea and sky, changing tints of the water, changing forms of the drifting cloud-craft. It is represented to the mind as a kind of industry to follow visually the sailing fortunes, tacking, and management of the willing ships as they go lightly over the bland deep (to me more often as though they were drawn mysteriously by a submerged magnet or invisible clue than otherwise propelled). When one’s mood is of the utmost indolence, a special pleasure is derived from contemplating those smooth areas, glassy pools of the sea, which the fishermen call “ wind-slicks ” (due to some inequality of the wind in that quarter) or “fish-slicks" (attributed to an oily fluid emitted by the bluefish). These smooth intervals, it seemed to me, were to the eye as to the ear might be a passage of clear, dulcet melody introduced in some subtle and perplexing music.

Inland, it had been a cherished hope that the lake would vouchsafe a glimpse from Flimsy Land, — home of the atmospheric pictures science knows under the term mirage. Such fulfillment was reserved for a still, hazily shining day on the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound, when I was startled by the vision of a faint, far, palisaded shore lying along the southern horizon, while an ominous ship sailed the air (such as once, in a childish dream, had presented itself as Argo navis). However, it is not necessary for mirage to intervene, to produce fanciful effects in sea and sky. A little imagination is a valid substitute for the proper atmospheric conditions; and to half-shut, dream-touched eyes a drooping sail, mellowly lighted, going over the burnished sea may appear as the mantled figure of a gracious one walking the water. A bevy of sails on the horizon may present the roving St. Brandan and his white pinnacles, elusive to the desirous mariner. Certain distant, long, low strips of grassy land, extending into the Sound, for me habitually floated in ether, and might at any time have become dissociated from the solid land without provoking much novel wonder. A bank of yellow sand, uncovered by the receding tide and shimmering in the afternoon sun, is your poet’s true Pactolian sands, — an easy prize, and such as will not awaken cupidity in the average saunterer of the shore. A rainbow spanning the waters, and resting its diaphanous base upon some wooded island, may indicate the position of more than its own proverbial pot of treasure ; for, if local tradition can be trusted, there are few points of the Connecticut and Massachusetts coast where that immortal pirate of glittering Plutonian memory, Captain Kidd, has not concealed his rich plunder. Moreover, it was my fortune, on the coast near New London, to be shown a remnant of barnacle-and-weed-draped timbers romancingly known as “the Spanish wreck; ” its destruction long antedating the memory of the living. Whether the good ship banked aught of value in the vaults of the sea is not recorded; but I do know that it was thereabouts, on a memorable night of summer full moon, that such treasure fell from the sky as put out of comparison with it the wealth of sunken galleons. There are those who could be called to witness whether, from a longrock reaching pier-like into the dancing waters, we did not behold a continuous shower of golden coinage, the pieces of all sizes, disk and inscription in dark eclipse, and only the shining rim visible, — all quickly and smoothly slipping under the secretive wave. That the moon and the restless sea were parties in this act of jettison was evident, but more I do not know. Between these two there is so plainly an old alliance, in which the dumb, inert land has no share, that we scarcely need appeal to science for corroboration. Towards and within the resplendent path of the moon on the water there seems always an apparent centring or increase of agitation, an innumerable activity in the liquid element. Calm the night may be, yet the little waves from all the dark purlieus of the sea are running in thither, as though to gain the favor of the caressing light. This path and its mobile throng should stand as the visible poetic symbol of lunar attraction, — “mooncharmed waters all unrest ” in very truth. Night after night the Endymion search still goes on, and watching eyes still follow the course of the pale wanderer through the heavens.

“ She dies at the thinnest, cloud ; her loveliness
Is wan on Neptune’s blue; yet there’s a stress
Of love-spangles, just off yon cape of trees,
Dancing upon the waves, as if to please
The curly foam with amorous influence.”

How shall I describe a certain effect which I once saw produced by the gentle art of the moon at her rising ? I saw her distinctly, with silver shuttle plying, weave together the receding wave with that incoming, as though the woof and warp of the sea were in her control, and combining their threads at her bidding.

But moonless, clear nights by the sea have an ingratiating and endearing influence all their own. Any large water retains the daylight to the last, so that darkness comes up but slowly in its neighborhood. The vault of heaven is deeper; the summer arch of the Milky Way makes a more triumphal span to the gazer on the beach, who has on one side the sculptured masses of the darkening land, and on the other the purplish, aerial vagueness of the water. Thereupon the evening star makes a faint pathway of light, and sends its love to the shore in broken gleams of the long, gently lapsing wave. All sounds, whether of land or sea, have been passed through a more ethereal medium. The hour is in league with divine, baffling half memories, regrets that come and go deprecatingly and will give no name, desires that project themselves in lines too indefinite for clear recognition; yet the contemplative peace of the soul is not marred through all.

Sometimes a wave from days and griefs outworn,
Estranged, upon the long-calmed heart is borne,
Flinging light surf that slowly ebbs away;
Not otherwise than when, in yonder bay,
(So still, so dim, star-fathomed here and there,)
A ripple comes as though it would prepare
The ever-patient, ever-listening shore
For some sea issue never felt before.
Yet dies the ripple on the sand’s vague rim,
And once more, mystical, star-fathomed, dim,
Lies the great deep. Whence was that frustrate motion ?
Lately a steamer to the outer ocean, —
No care of ours, — a ward of unknown fate,
Passed by in alien and in sombre state:
Scarcely we heard the throbbing of her wheel,—
Saw not the vitreous tumult round her keel;
Yet of her flight was this slow ripple born
That, with a laggard errantry forlorn,
And subtle rockings of the mirrored star,
Stirred to brief strife the waters of the bar.

Unbroken fair weather here, as else-where, at last brings desire of change. So when signs of storm at sea increase, they produce a certain thrill of expectation in the shore-safe looker-on, such as the ignorant child might feel, hearing rumors of impending conflict between two hostile camps pitched in the neighborhood. Suggestive to me was the sea’s appearance of being occupied in nursing its wrath, in brooding on ancient causes and wrongs unwreaked; now sullenly glooming, now lighted up with fitful, vindictive gleams, till at last the warchariots went forth, driven by invisible genii of storm, and battle was universal,

— entire against the stark shore, and internecine, wave against wave. Something I saw of the extraordinary autumnal tides of 1889, a singular feature of which was that, at the outset, while the shore waters were in stormy agitation, the distant sea remained in tranquil oblivion. From hour to hour and through several days this agitation increasing, gradually the whole perspective of ocean became tumultuous, until all the powers of Homer’s great battlepiece seemed present.

“ They all stood in the mids,
And brake contention to the hosts.”

From far and continuously along the shore came the immense waves, each like the wing of an army closing in to present an impregnable front; or, in the grim twilight of the evening, each wave appeared a moving, sepulchral ridge roofing an interminable black passageway. While exulting with a kind of elemental joy in the mightiness of such erected, inmarching waters, the soul has yet a fantastic sense of losing to their cavernous hollows a hoard of precious things, hopes, aspirations, affections, — ingulfed and carried down by the wave, which is, finally, its own grave beneath a gray pallor of tumbling froth.

From our seaside experience should not be omitted the interregnum of Fog, — compromise between foul and fair weather (often with a suavity of touch not surpassed by any fair weather). The sea, rarefied, etherealized, seems rising to enfold the land for its own. This dream has both its ivory and its horn gate : dense fog as though under the shadow of a cloud, and sunlighted fog with its luminous moving atoms. Actual vision shut off, fancy is liberated, and sets about furnishing the surrounding void with a huge and grotesque imagery, while sound, its source no longer visible, comes as a mythic herald of the unknown.

The blind sea shoreward rolls,
The blind stream seaward flows ;
To the west the log-hell tolls,
To the east the fog-horn blows.
Long moans the wave-swung bell,
“ We cannot wake the morn.”
“ All, all will yet be well,”
From shore responds the horn.
Still with the mist they cope
In wandering peal and bout ;
To the east faint voice of hope,
To the west faint voice of doubt.
These may the sailor thrill, —
They come not home to me ;
But oh, the little bird’s trill
In that near yet dim-seen tree !

In my hearing the sea always spoke freely of the wrecks it had made, sometimes arguing in extenuation its own helplessness, —being so at the mercy of its powerful adversary, wind. It did not conceal, as discreetly it might have concealed, the bleaching skeletons of many a ship. These, rapidly converted to the hue and favor of the sea, as is all that comes within its domain, looked like the blanched and desiccated ribs of leviathan. But I had a closer acquaintance with wrecks than a survey from land could offer, for I boarded a schooner that had run aground and been abandoned to the waves the year before. It was a calm sea, as in a small boat my friend and I approached that scene of old disaster, — a calm sea and a still day; yet something (was it the soul of the ship ?) kept up a moan and shudder throughout her timbers. A futilely struggling consciousness seemed to speak from her. “ Why come ye not and put me out of this misery? ” was the import of the mysterious complainings heard in every slow breath of the sea lifting that poor shattered body. Add to this the clanking of a rusted chain depending from her side into the water, and a certain piteousness in the spectacle of a small boat at the stern, — alive itself, but bound vassal-like to the dead fortunes of its pathfinder. From our own small craft I disembarked into the wreck, my friend rowing away to a little distance. From the deck I went into the cabin. Many of the flooring planks having been torn away, there was disclosed the dark water treacherously undulating below. Sounds as of sobbings, and gurgling throat sounds as of life in the last throe, saluted my ear. Tales of kelpie and Klabotermann and other grisly visitants of the sea swarmed into my mind. I had no desire to be supercargo, with the chance of such a crew. Panic fear gained the ascendency, and, hurrying on deck, I was very glad to drop into the little living dory that had come alongside at my cry for relief.

This fenceless way is one of white neutrality. Of the land, it is still not the land’s, each grain of sand being in constant though slight defection. And though

“ twice a day with its embossèd froth
The turbulent surge shall cover,”

it is not the sea’s ; for though the sea may withdraw therefrom, yet is the sea adding thereto by the deposit of each incoming wave. The beach and the sea wall are true debatable land, and along some parts of the New England coast the contention for its supremacy is almost thrilling. Here the sea makes inroads, deepening the bend of a bay, and there the land keeps a balance by planting offshore shallow banks, — terræ incognitæ at present, yet by and by to attain the dignity of islets and a geographical christening. Where the reduction of the land goes on the most rapidly the beach sands present a tawnier color than in other quarters, where, the sea and the land being at comparative truce, the sands have lain in bleach through a longer period. This tawny color is also characteristic of the lake beach, but nowhere by the seashore have I seen aught resembling the pretty pebbly strand of Erie.

This strip of debatable land has been touched by the rod of necromancy, so that every object, great or small, lying upon the smooth shore is of an haunting, inexplicable interest to the unfamiliar visitor. Here are strewn leaf, stem, and flower of uncouth sea plants : some of them like ironical tokens remotely allusive in form to vegetable growths of the land ; some of a slender and beautiful arborescence, reddish or purple in color, and suggesting the vein system of living animal organisms ; others like monstrous frills of leather, or portions of the cast coat of some marine pachyderm, and decidedly objectionable to the eye ; all with like taste and smell, the one-flavored, one-scented vegetation of the sea’s garden. At first we make collection of these things, either for their beauty or their grotesqueness; but I found that what had befallen the spoils of many a wood ramble was aggravatedly illustrated in the ease of treasures wrested from the sea wave. They do not wait till removed from their native haunts to lose their attractiveness : no sooner has the hand of one of Tellus’s children touched them than they begin to suffer unlovely diminution. The seashell may keep inland its old murmur, but it never looks the same as when just withdrawn from its fellowship with the water and the sands.

The sea beach has its characteristic markings. Here are the footprints of those birds whose abundant table is set along the edge of the surf. Far fewer traces of four-footed kind are noted than on the Great Lake beaches, — for what creature quenches thirst in this bitter cup ? Certain vermicular lines sometimes appear, where the dry and curling blades of eel-grass, blown by the wind, have executed a whimsical etching.

Whether shaping the drift of sand or of snow, the action of the wind is much the same, for both substances often acquire the appearance of being ribbed, and the whiteness of sea sands may simulate the tint of old snowbanks.

As to the murmur of the seashell, I am reminded that a shell in my possession whispers equally of the ocean and of the overlooking pine grove whence it was Withdrawn; for if the sea has its souvenirs of the land, the latter does not lack reciprocal tokens from the sea. The pine grove I have in my mind has its frequent scallop and oyster shell and crumbling armor of the crab, — all presumably brought thither and dropped by certain sea-fed birds.

They lightly judge who can discern but feud
Between the ancient Earth and elder Sea,
As waves resisted down the shingle flee,
Or chafing tides the wooded coasts denude.
Here where the high, breeze-winnowed floor is strewed
With silent sheddings from the wave-loved tree, —
The rugged pine, — lo, here breathes fealty,
And sacred world-old vows are still renewed.
Dear is the Sea’s voice to this leaning wood ;
And often will the Sea be hashed to hear
The chanting of the dark-stoled brotherhood
Thanks-giving for the eaglet’s timely food,
The fruitful mist that greens the upland sear
And bathes the wild rose with its furtive tear.

Born and bred inland, one advances but slowly in the lore of continent-lapping waters, assaulted rock, and the companioning rugged groves that stand far out on the hurricane deck of the land (such, for instance, as the windy exposure of Cape Cod). To claim a familiar acquaintance were presumptuous ; indeed, I found that any undue confidence of this sort was summarily checked by the genii loci.

The brief sojourner of a day
By sea, and high-browed shore, and wood,
Besought them : “If ye may,
Possess me with your native mood.”
As, tarrying there, I dreamed or slept,
With will dissolved, of thought set free,
A voice from sea to forest swept, —
A voice that seemed unbound for me.
This voice, unclear but passing sweet,
Ere I awoke, had died away.
“ O sovran sea, O woods, repeat
What ye but now did dimly say ! ”
“ I nothing’ said,” replied the Sea.
“ I nothing said,” soft sighed the Pine.
“ I nothing said,— or naught to thee ;
Thou art no confidant of mine ! ”

Edith M. Thomas.